The battle over the Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail line continues to boil, with a new report issued by the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group which criticizes the projects funding structure, adding heat to the argument.
The California High Speed Rail Authority responded immediately with harsh condemnation of the group’s study, questioning their fundamental understanding of how high-speed rail systems are built throughout the world.
California Law AB 3034 mandated creation of an eight-member Peer Review Group with a different California official responsible for appointing each member; the group currently has six members, two slots are open. The document’s central criticism seems to be that the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) has failed to secure funds to cover the projects $74.5 billion final cost:
We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California.
CAHSRA was quick to point out that no large project of any
stripe—rail, road, or otherwise—is held to this strict standard. They
argued that the plan created by the Authority was in line with best
practices for high-speed rail systems built around the world.
Roelof van Ark, chief executive of CAHSRA, wrote, “It is unfortunate that the peer review committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the authority’s program and the experience around the world in successfully developing high-speed rail. As someone involved in many of the successful high-speed rail programs internationally, I can say that the recommendations of this committee simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition.”
There was also the implication that this report could be a
self-fulfilling prophecy. The more doubt that legislators cast upon
their willingness to go forward with the project, the more skittish the
U.S. Congress and private investors get about supporting the project.
Another peer review committee commissioned by the Authority to review
its work—made up of engineers, transportation planners, and
economists—had in fact already deemed the ridership model a solid
foundation for project planning just this summer, with this to say about CAHSRA’s business plan:
“We are satisfied with the documentation presented in Cambridge Systematics, and conclude that it demonstrates that the model produces results that are reasonable and within expected ranges for the current environmental planning and Business Plan applications of the model. We were very pleased with the content, quality and quantity of the information.”
As for the political implications of the new peer review group study, Robert Cruickshank has this to say over at the California High Speed Rail Blog:
There’s no doubt that the lack of secured, full funding is a problem. The question is how does one resolve it? Do you assume that the federal government will never spend another dime on high speed rail again and call it a day? Or do you press onward and build what you can, working to change Congress’ mind while also hoping that the initial construction can itself act as a spur to win more funding?
There’s no doubt this report will be used by HSR critics in Sacramento and Washington to argue against spending the bond money. But they’ll have to fight Governor Brown, President Obama, California’s Democratic Congressional delegation, and the California Labor Federation.
Mr. Cruikshank may well be right, but we’d be remiss not to come up with a full tally of the opponents lined up and ready to fight this project. You can be certain that when an issue becomes as politicized as high-speed rail has—and when a project is as big as this one is—there will no shortage of willing combatants.
None of this is to say the legislature should not be closely involved with the project; overseeing the prudent investment of public funds is one of the highest responsibilities of government officials. But there is an inconsistency in the way the Los Angeles to San Francisco rail corridor is being treated, as compared to other transportation expenditures. And the legislators involved are certainly on the hook to consider the cost of the alternatives: the cost of more congestion, more roads, and more airports and runways. The current estimates put that cost at as much as $171 billion, for an additional 2,300 lane-miles of highways, 4 runways, and 115 airline gates.